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On Thursday (And Sunday) The Rabbi Played Jazz

Growing up in Framingham, Massachusetts, Greg Wall had “a smattering of cultural Judaism.” After his bar mitzvah in a reform synagogue, he says, “I was out of there. It did nothing for me.”

Music, though, did a lot for Greg. Moving from Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Hendrix, Tull and Sly to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, the teenager found his passion.

He played keyboard and sax. After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Greg moved to New York. He would seek his fortune as a jazz musician.

Greg Wall, back in the day.

Greg Wall, back in the day.

Through “a bizarre turn of events,” he landed gigs in Hasidic Brooklyn. “My mother always said Orthodox Jews were crazy,” Greg says. “She was right. I loved it.”

He played Hasidic weddings “to support my jazz habit.” Gradually, he grew more devout. Eventually, he married an observant Jew.

Still, he says, “I thought we’d just celebrate the Sabbath.” Though Greg no longer played on Friday and Saturday nights, he began recording and touring. He played Carnegie Hall, The Knitting Factory and Joe’s Pub in New York, plus venues from Montreal to Europe.

On trains and planes, he read about Judaism. The more he studied, the more he was drawn in.

Wanting their kids to have the religious education they’d missed, Greg and his wife enrolled them in a Jewish day school. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, he enrolled himself.

“The next thing I knew, I was a rabbi,” Greg says. (I’m sure he left out a few details.)

The 2 faces of Greg Wall.

The 2 faces of Greg Wall.

In 2009 — 3 years after ordination — a friend called. “Have I got a shul for you!” he said, more or less. Greg had no intention of being a congregational rabbi, but when he heard it was in the East Village, he was hooked.

Over the next 3 years, Greg added arts to the synagogue’s schedule. Music 4 nights a week was preceded by classes in theology and other Jewish subjects.

Greg enjoyed his new job. His family didn’t. They couldn’t afford to live nearby, so his wife and kids were stuck in New Jersey.

Rabbi Greg Wall, doing double duty at his East Village synagogue.

Rabbi Greg Wall, doing double duty at his East Village synagogue.

Last year, a congregant who’d grown up here told Greg that Beit Chaverim needed a rabbi. Greg had heard Westport was “an artsy place. The NFL was not the main topic of discussion” (apparently it was in his Jersey town).

Greg was hired. A few members of the search committee knew his recordings. He’d already proven he could be an excellent rabbi as well as a performing musician, so that was not an issue.

He began his new gig at the Orthodox synagogue on Post Road West last August. He was delighted to find how “nice and genuine” Westporters are — congregants and others — and what active, varied lives they lead.

Beit Chaverim

Greg sees many parallels between Judaism and jazz. Both come from an “inherited tradition.” Both demand plenty of practice.

And, Greg says, both Judaism and jazz “require you to think out of the box. Jazz needs originality and creativity. Judaism tells us to constantly reinvent ourselves. ‘Sing a new song to God,’ we’re told.”

Greg toured Europe last summer. Last week, he played Town Hall in New York. But he loves playing close to home.

You can’t get much closer than the Spotted Horse.

Spotted Horse logoHe brought his sax to the Church Lane (how ironic) hot spot in February. Jazz brunch sold out. He quickly became a favorite.

Now he’s booked 3 more performances: the next 2 Sundays (April 6 and 13, 12:30-3:30 p.m.) and Thursday, April 10 (8-11 p.m.).

Being a jazz musician/rabbi in a swinging restaurant is out of the ordinary. So are some of the comments Greg hears.

“People sometimes confide in me between sets,” he says. “That’s fine. I’m always on duty.”

He’s returned to the Spotted Horse a few times — not to play sax, but to lead Talmud classes.

“That’s a lot of fun,” he says. “The food is good too!”

And kosher. Though only when Rabbi Greg Wall performs there.

Rabbi Greg Wall

Rabbi Greg Wall




Jane Green Writes About Westport; Tempts Fate

Jane Green — the prolific and much-admired author of women’s novels — was on the “Today Show” with Kathie Lee and Hoda yesterday.

Tempting FateShe was promoting her 15th book, Tempting Fate. The protagonist has an affair with a younger man. And it did not take the hosts long to hone in on the Westport connection.

In her mid-40s here in town, Jane said, she noticed a trend of women suddenly getting very skinny, looking newly glamorous, and leaving their husbands. Tired of “feeling invisible” at home, they were having affairs.

This is not stop-the-presses news. It’s been happening here — in all of suburbia — for years. Entire forests have been sacrificed describing the “trend.”

But Green put it this way: “After a while, marriage is pots and pans.” Women need to feel desired again.

Green said she wrote about the human condition. “People are flawed,” she noted.

When the segment moved to audience questions, the 1st — from a woman in California — was about Green’s inspiration.

Jane Green

Jane Green

For years, the author said, she wrote about a fictional place: Highfield. This was her 1st novel explicitly about Westport.

It’s “a beautiful town,” she acknowledged. But, she added, “I write about what I know.”

Kathie Lee responded: “Please don’t come to Greenwich.”

As if it’s any different.

(To watch the full Jane Green interview, click here.)

Travels With Poppy

Jono Walker’s Westport roots date back before the Revolutionary War. He lives in Pennsylvania now, but grew up on South Compo Road with a very interesting family.

Jono’s mother Joy was a beloved Staples English teacher. His father Bill was a well-known youth sports coach. And his grandfather — Phil “Poppy” Schuyler — was a noted journalist.

When Jono heard that the trees on the Longshore entrance road were being removed, he remembered them well. Here’s Jono’s story:

Back in the mid-1960’s my grandfather Poppy had a regular 7 a.m. Saturday tennis date on the clay courts at Longshore. He was also my ride to the caddy shack for a couple of summers. It’s a miracle I survived that harrowing weekly commute.

Phil Schuyler

Phil Schuyler

After dropping me off at the caddy bench beneath the big copper beech behind the 1st tee, Poppy headed around the corner to his self-assigned parking space between 2 towering maple trees bordering the back of the tennis courts.

Because it was such a tight squeeze, Poppy found it difficult to get his jelly bean-shaped Volvo angled for maximum shade relief. Being such a lousy parallel parker didn’t help, nor did the fact he was going deaf and couldn’t tell when he was riding the clutch. He raised a thunderous racket as he va-ROOMed forward and then va-ROOMed backwards – several times. That routine provided early-arriving caddies with many minutes of live entertainment.

The worst event occurred the morning we nearly bought the farm while heading up the entrance road. Poppy leaned extra heavily on the accelerator, turning the big stately poplars and maples lining the half-mile long straightaway into twin rows of blurry toothpicks. I saw we were pushing 70, heading fast for the attendant’s kiosk and S-turns by the first green. When I looked back up, there — straight in front of us – loomed the row of trees lining the first curve.

No way would we make that turn. I screamed, but the old boy remained cool. In the final split second before skidding into the trees and certain death, he aimed straight through a gap at the apogee of the curve. Suddenly we were over the berm and airborne, sailing straight onto the 18th fairway. We landed with a loud groan of flying sod and clanking axles, but more or less safely intact.

Caddies sitting near the old Inn at Longshore saw quite a driving exhibition by Poppy Schuyler, back in the day.

Caddies sitting near the old Inn at Longshore saw quite a driving exhibition by Poppy Schuyler, back in the day.

We rolled to a stop, and looked back in amazement at the narrow gap between the trees we had squeezed through. Despite one hell of a divot at the point of initial contact, car, driver, passenger and fairway were none the worse for wear.

The caddies recognized the car. They rose from their bench and cheered like crazy. The whole gang ran over to greet us like conquering heroes.  They gathered round the windows laughing, while guiding us past the sprinkler heads, sand traps, rakes, and beyond the ball washer where we returned to the road.

It took a couple of hours that morning to get my caddy loop. That was fine. I needed the extra time to get my heartbeat back to normal.

In a cruel coincidence, my guy hooked his drive off the 1st tee across the road where we had nearly crashed. I walked past the tire marks and big gash in the turf. But I didn’t start to shake all over again until I saw the stump, shorn to the ground at the exact point where we sailed over the berm. The tree had been removed only recently.

“Leaf scorch,” my guy said as I stared at the stump. “It’s a shame they had to take it down.”

Remembering Sid Caesar And Imogene Coca

The news of Sid Caesar’s death yesterday at 91 made me think of this photo:

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca

It hangs in Staples High School, courtesy of the Westport Public Schools Permanent Art Collection. Students and staff walk by it every day. Most have no idea it’s a portrait of Caesar and his longtime performing partner, Imogene Coca.

Those who do probably don’t know that she lived in Westport. Coca died here in 2001, age 92.

And even the folks who know that don’t know this iconic shot was taken by Victor Keppler. A renowned photographer, he helped found Famous Photographers School, headquartered here. He lived in Westport too, until his death in 1987 at 83.

(Hat tip to Kathie Motes Bennewitz for these Westport connections.)

Remembering Jack Berry

Jack Berry — beloved and longtime leader of Westport’s Boy Scout troop 36 — died early today. He stepped down — reluctantly, and with a fantastic sendoff — last spring, due to the effects of pancreatic cancer.

Jack Berry

Jack Berry

At last year’s retirement dinner, Zach Effman was awed by his scoutmaster’s devotion.

His incredible ability to see and bring out the best in others and his joy in doing so has been an inspiration to me, while I have had the privilege of seeing him doing what he does best. Without any hesitation, I can say that Mr. Berry is the best person I have ever known. I know that his presence in the troop will be missed, but I also know that his effect on my life will never fade.

Marshall Knutson praised:

With over 50 years of scouting experience under his belt, Mr. Berry amounts to no less than a scouting God. His unwavering devotion to scouting and his inspirational charisma make him perfect at what he does. Under his guidance, Troop 36 recruits more new scouts and pumps out more Eagle Scouts than any other troop in Connecticut, solidifying Mr. Berry’s reputation as one of the greatest scoutmasters ever. His skill lies in his ability to observe a scout’s strengths and weaknesses, and provide them with the leadership opportunities they would most likely succeed at.

A small group of the many Boy Scouts who honored Jack Berry last year.

A small group of the many Boy Scouts who honored Jack Berry last year.

Edward Hickson –another  Eagle, now a junior at Ithaca College — said:

Scouting turned out to be one of the highlights of high school for me, and I can say with complete conviction that it would not be the same if Mr. Berry had not been my scoutmaster….Mr. Berry was there every step of the way. His motivation and commitment to helping me advance in scouting and become a better person means he is an inspiration to me and to all the other scouts who have had the privilege of participating in his Troop 36.

Jack Berry was a Scout to the end. Today, coincidentally, is the 104th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America.

Not Exactly The Christmas Spirit

A native Westporter returned home for the holidays. The day before Christmas he picked up his girlfriend at the station, then did some errands.

He parked in front of the post office, and went inside. The Nissan Rogue began to roll backward. His girlfriend could not get the car in park, or reach the emergency brake. She jumped out, was clipped by the door and fell. The right front tire rolled over her leg. The car continued backward, before catching on concrete.

Fortunately, damage to the young woman was limited to ligaments. The car is okay too. No one else — and no other vehicles — were damaged.

So what makes this story “06880″-worthy?

Two cars drove through the Playhouse Square lot. Both drivers saw a young woman on the ground, next to a car that clearly did not belong where it should — and continued on their merry way.

The ex-Westporter — a bit disappointed by this tarnished Christmas (or human) tale — does thank the people who stopped to help.

Once you get into Playhouse Square, why stop for someone else?

Once you get into Playhouse Square, why stop for someone else?

The Geiger Barn: Under The Gun

Wendy Crowther’s family came to Westport in 1971. They moved into an antique house, which captured the teenager’s interest. A few years later she did the research necessary for it to be listed in Westport’s Historic Inventory. 

That sparked a love of Westport history that continues today. It also spurred her to write this commentary, for “06880.”

Having been elated over the RTM’s recent action to  “approve the move” that saved the historic Kemper-Gunn House from the wrecking ball, it was particularly disheartening to notice the following:

Westport’s Historic District Commission just posted the agenda for its November 12 meeting. Of the 16 agenda items, 14 are requests to waive the balance of the delay period for a demolition permit. So there are 14 requests to demolish 15 structures in Westport (one is a request to demolish 2 structures on 1 property). Each is 50 years old or more.

One of the 14 requests is a house listed on Westport’s Historic Resources Inventory. Another is located in the Mill Cove Historic District.

Among the 14 requests to waive the balance of the delay period for a demolition permit is this cottage next to Westport Wash & Wax. Built around 1900 and on Westport's Historic inventory, it's located on Long Lots Road, near the  Post Road and Bertucci's. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Among the 14 requests to waive the rest of the delay period for a demolition permit is this cottage next to Westport Wash & Wax. Built around 1900 and on Westport’s Historic inventory, it’s on Long Lots Road near Bertucci’s. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

A 180-day demo delay has already been placed on each of these structures. However, the applicants are requesting that the HDC waive the remainder of the delay.

I’m always astounded at the number of demo permit applications that the HDC must review each month. But  this might be the biggest list ever.

I’m not intimately familiar with most of the 15 structures/homes listed for pending demolition. And I’m not saying that all of them are notable enough to warrant preservation efforts (though I do object to decent, livable homes being relegated to landfill).

However, one of the demo permits involves the 2 buildings on the Geiger Garden Center property.

This property has been in and out of the news for a few years. A site plan for redevelopment was floated through the town’s approval bodies a year or two ago (I think the application ran into difficulties and was withdrawn). Based on the above request to waive the demo delay, I’m guessing a new stab at redevelopment of the site is coming around again.

I’m not a fan of the Geiger house that fronts the Post Road — but I am a big fan of the old barn in the rear. Inside that barn are supporting beams/joists that still have bark on them. I was told by an old-time Westporter that these joists were made of hemlock trees that came from what is now Winslow Park.

The Geiger barn. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The Geiger barn. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

I hope the HDC will not waive the remainder of the demo delay for this barn. In the meantime, I hope there might be a way to save it and incorporate it into whatever plans the developers might have for the property.

Or perhaps someone out there would love to put an old barn on their property.  Could the developers of the Geiger property be convinced to fund such a move?  David Waldman and his partners (of Kemper-Gunn preservation fame) have learned what good sense and good will can come from preservation efforts.  Perhaps David can put in a good word for this great old barn.

Westporters have helped encourage some great saves lately. The Kemper-Gunn House was one of those saves. Another was convincing the corporate entity that owns Terrain that they couldn’t tear down the little, vintage house (formerly the Dress Barn) to help improve their parking problem.

Can the barn on the Geiger property stimulate a similar rallying cry for preservation?

Kerstin And Vijay’s “Princess Bride” Wedding

She’s a Westport teacher from Minnesota who majored in art. He’s a Brooklyn computer programmer, born in India.

They met through OkCupid — how else would their paths have crossed? Despite their disparate backgrounds, they fell in love.

Unsurprisingly, their wedding Monday afternoon at Longshore was — well, different.

Some of the actors at Kerstin's wedding. They're part of her improv group. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

Some of the actors at Kerstin’s wedding. They’re part of her improv group. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

The theme was “The Princess Bride.” Sure, any couple can have a wedding based on the Rob Reiner-directed love/adventure/story-within-a-story movie.

But Kerstin and Vijay are not “any couple.”

“We’re so far down the nerd rabbit hole, it’s amazing,” the Bedford Middle School instructor laughs.

She nailed it.

David Pogue played the narrator. He read the "Princess Bride" story to his son Jeffrey. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

David Pogue played the narrator. He read the “Princess Bride” story to his son Jeffrey. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

They got the original movie script, and edited it down to 30 minutes. They enlisted the help of friends like David Pogue, who played the father reading the love story to his son Jeffrey.

Then everyone changed — did I mention the couple rented costumes for the “cast”?– and the actual wedding took place outside.

Kerstin and Vijay spent weeks making an enormous mockup of places from the movie: The Cliffs of Insanity, the Fire Swamp, Miracle Max’s Hut, the Castle of Florence. It served as a cake stand. Where else would you put it?

Kerstin and Vijay cut the cake. They created the "Princess Bride" tableau themselves. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

Kerstin and Vijay cut the cake. They created the “Princess Bride” tableau themselves. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

There was a sword fight too. It was not really planned out. Well, Kerstin and Vijay knew about it. But many guests were members of her improv group, so…

Bill Derry as the Impressive Clergyman. He also performed the actual ceremony. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

Bill Derry as the Impressive Clergyman. He also performed the actual ceremony. (Photo/Pam Einarsen)

Bill Derry — the Westport Library‘s assistant director of innovation and user experience — served as officiant. He was not some random choice. He’s the visionary behind the “MakerSpace” at the library.

This was very much a “Maker Wedding.” The Maker movement brought Vijay and Kerstin closer. It introduced them to David, Bill and Mark Mathias (another member of the wedding). And the wedding combined elements of the Maker movement: model-making, Arduino programming, improv comedy, costumes, old-fashioned calligraphy, modern Photoshop editing and Etsy craft vendors.

Even the choice of day and time — Monday afternoon — was unique.

“We’re not rolling in dough,” Kerstin says. “We wanted a beautiful venue in the fall, and Longshore is less expensive on non-weekends. We looked at the calendar, and chose Columbus Day.”

But – oops! — in March, the Board of Education decided school would be in session that holiday.

Kerstin took a personal day to get married. A few fellow-teacher guests worried they’d be late, because of a faculty meeting.

It all turned out fine. The affair went as perfectly as any improv-filled, “Princess Bride”-themed wedding between an Indian programmer and a Westport teacher should go.

No word on what they’ve planned for their honeymoon.

Kerstin and Vijay walking back down the aisle. The ceremony included both American and Hindu traditions. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

Kerstin and Vijay walking back down the aisle. The ceremony included both American and Hindu traditions. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

Google This!

The Westport Library sends out a steady stream of press releases, humping upcoming events. Discussions, movies, meetings — all are interesting (at least to someone), and important (ditto).

I ignore most of them. If I flogged even 5% of the library’s PR efforts, “06880″ would be a bulletin board, not a blog.

Yet every now and then, an upcoming event causes me to raise an eyebrow.

This one does — literally.

On Saturday, October 12 (2 pm), former PC Magazine editor-in-chief — and Westport resident — Michael Miller will talk about Google Glass.

He’ll also show it off.

The future of cool? Or just really silly looking?

The future of cool? Or just really silly looking?

I don’t spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley or hipsterish Brooklyn, so I haven’t seen Google Glass in action yet. But I’m fascinated by it. I’m not sure whether Glass is an amazing step into the future — or a frightening, intrusive technology.

I’d love to “see” for myself.

Unfortunately, I can’t be at the library that day. The Staples soccer team I coach has a huge game in Greenwich.

Fortunately — thanks to Google Glass –Miller can record his talk, and simultaneously send it to me.

I think. I hope. I fear.

Tracking Today’s Trains

It’s one of those days.

A  Con Ed problem forced Metro-North to provide extremely limited service between Stamford and Grand Central.

Hourly service will make all local stops. The 1st train began a few minutes ago, at 9 a.m.

That’s why the train station parking lot was almost empty this morning.

Some commuters drove in. Some will work from home. Some may (ahem) take advantage of fantastic weather on a found fall day.

This is the morning commute when the trains don't run.

This is the morning commute when the trains don’t run.

What’s your plan? Hit “Comments” if you’ve got a great idea.